Review by Sean Boelman
Very few films make it out of the Fall festival circuit with above a 90 on Metacritic, and Alice Diop’s Saint Omer joins that exclusive club, becoming one of the highest-rated movies of the year. It’s for good reason too, as the film is quietly and profoundly moving in a way that will leave much of the audience speechless.
The movie follows a novelist observing the court case of a young woman accused of murdering her own daughter, planning to use the story as inspiration for a modern-day riff on the myth of Medea. At two hours in length, it’s about ninety minutes of courtroom testimony with thirty minutes of context to get us there, but it’s perhaps the most gripping courtroom movie you will ever see.
Admittedly, the film’s framing device is a bit confusing and may put off some audiences. Diop is clearly trying to draw parallelisms between the two characters, and the scenes that happen outside of the courtroom may be seen as dull and mundane by some viewers. However, the finale brings everything together in a way that is utterly heartbreaking and soul-crushing beyond belief.
It’s honestly astounding that the movie is able to get so much sympathy from the audience for its characters. One of them barely has any lines, and the other has committed an act that is easily dismissed as heinous, and yet Diop and her co-writers approach them with such nuance that they blur the lines between good and bad, moral and immoral, and force the audience to reflect on what they think they know about the truth.
This is the type of film with layers and layers to unpack. On the surface, it is a courtroom drama following a woman as she attempts to testify in her defense. However, if you dig deeper, there are so many more themes to be found. At once, it’s a dissection of racial dynamics in France, an exploration of motherhood and womanhood, and a story about the terrifying consequences of assimilation.
Guslagie Malanga is an absolute powerhouse as the defendant testifying in the court case. Given that much of the movie is simply her answering questions or monologuing, her performance is a large part of what makes the film so extraordinarily gripping. Kayije Kagame is also excellent as the movie’s much more quiet lead, still having a commanding presence despite saying fewer words.
Saint Omer is Diop’s narrative debut, as she was previously known as a documentarian, having made several acclaimed nonfiction films. Viewers will be able to tell that her background is in nonfiction, as the movie is shot in a very straightforward way, with extremely long takes and close shots, focusing on the contents of the frame rather than the frame itself.
What Alice Diop has accomplished with Saint Omer is frankly extraordinary. It takes a straightforward premise in a familiar genre and uses simple yet exquisite and powerful execution to absolutely crush the audience. We already knew Alice Diop was a great filmmaker, but this cements her as one of the best.
Saint Omer screened as part of the 2022 Miami Film Festival GEMS program, which runs November 3-10.